FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — High winds raised a towering wall of flames outside a northern Arizona resort town Tuesday, destroying two dozen structures and forcing residents of more than 700 homes to flee.
Flames of up to 100 feet (30 meters) tore through an area of scattered homes, dry grass and Ponderosa pines on the outskirts of Flagstaff as wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) pushed the flames onto a major highway.
Coconino County officials said during an afternoon news conference that 766 homes and 1,000 animals had been evacuated. Nearly 250 structures remained under threat in the area popular with hikers and ATV users and where astronauts have trained amid volcanic ash pits.
The county declared an emergency after the wildfire grew from 100 acres (40 hectares) Tuesday morning to more than 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) by night, and ash rained from the sky. The fire was moving northeast, away from the more densely populated areas of Flagstaff, home to Northern Arizona University, and toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, said Brady Smith, a spokesman for the Coconino National Forest.
“It’s good because it’s not heading into a very populated area and it’s heading into less fuel,” Smith said. “But depending on the intensity of the fire, the fire can still move through the ashes.”
Authorities won’t be able to determine if anyone was injured in the wildfire until the flames subside. Firefighters and law enforcement officers went door to door telling people to evacuate, but had to retreat to avoid being trapped, Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said.
He said his office received a call about a man who was trapped inside his home, but firefighters were unable to locate him.
“We don’t know if he made it out or not,” Driscoll said.
Various organizations worked to establish shelters for evacuees and animals, including goats and horses.
The scene was all too familiar to residents who recalled rushing to pack their bags and flee a dozen years ago when a much larger wildfire burned in the same area.
“This time it was different, right there in her backyard,” said Kathy Vollmer, a resident.
She said she and her husband grabbed their three dogs but left a couple of cats behind when they faced what she described as a “wall of fire.”
“We just hope they’re okay,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the wildfire closed US 89, the main route between Flagstaff and the far north of Arizona, and communities of the Navajo Nation. High winds grounded a plane that could drop water and fire retardant on the fire.
Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, shut off power to about 625 customers to keep firefighters safe, a spokeswoman said.
Some 200 firefighters were battling the flames, but more are expected as a high-level national management team takes control later this week.
The fire started Sunday afternoon 14 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of Flagstaff. Investigators still don’t know what caused it and have yet to corral any part of the fire.
Ali Taranto rushed to Flagstaff from Winslow, where she works at a hospital, on Tuesday to check out a property she owns that was threatened by the wildfire. She was also receiving messages to check on a neighbor who discovered that he did not have access to oxygen while the power was out and did not have the strength to manually open his garage door to evacuate.
Taranto said the neighbor was “disoriented and out of breath” when he caught up with her. Area firefighters helped open the garage door and the neighbor to the hospital, she said. Taranto was looking for a shelter for the neighbor’s two dogs.
When Taranto left the area, the road to Flagstaff was closed and he had to drive two more hours home. At least two other neighbors did not evacuate, she said.
“Seeing the flames several meters away from his property line and hearing the propane tanks exploding in the background, it was very surreal,” Taranto said. “Ash falling. He was crazy.”
Wind is expected to be a challenge the rest of the week, along with warmer-than-average weather and low humidity, the National Weather Service said.
“I don’t see significant decreases in wind, I don’t see large increases in humidity, and at this point we don’t expect any precipitation either,” said meteorologist Robert Rickey.
Red flag warnings covered much of Arizona and New Mexico on Tuesday, indicating conditions are ripe for wildfires. Residents of Mora and San Miguel counties in northern New Mexico were warned to be ready to evacuate as wildfires burned there amid dry, hot and windy conditions.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that nearly 2,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel have been assigned to more than a dozen large wildfires in the Southwest, South and Rocky Mountain areas. Scientists say climate change has made the western US much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Elsewhere in Arizona, firefighters battled a wildfire in a sparsely populated area of the Prescott National Forest, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott.
Cory Carlson, the incident commander for the Prescott National Forest, said Tuesday afternoon that high winds have been the biggest challenge, sending embers into the air sparking new fires near State Route 261, along with demand for equipment in other fires.
“We have a lack of resources,” he said. “There are many fires in the region.”
Some areas were evacuated and a shelter was set up at Yavapai College. Carlson called on residents to comply with evacuation orders.
The cause of the 600-acre (2.4-square-kilometre) wildfire was under investigation.
In southern Arizona, a major highway between Bisbee and Sierra Vista reopened Tuesday after being closed for about eight hours due to a wildfire in the foothills overlooking Bisbee.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.